Portland Streetcar

Portland Eastside Streetcar Extension to Get Federal Funds

You’ve got to give me some credit for guessing this eleven whole days ago: Portland’s Eastside Streetcar Loop will get federal funds.

The 3.3-mile project, which will cost a total of $127 million, will get $75 million from the federal government. The project will be in operation in 2011. As I wrote in my previous post, this demonstrates the Obama Administration’s interest in promoting streetcar projects and developing mobility solutions that produce livable, attractive cities.

Sorry, not much else to say, just wanted to gloat.

DOT Vehicles

Damning Report on State of Good Repair Needs Released

» Federal Transit Administration’s study indicates that the nation’s largest rail systems have a long way to go before they’re ready for prime time.

In December 2007, several senators asked the Federal Transit Administration to study the capital needs of the nation’s largest rail systems, and the government agency has released its report today. To put it bluntly, its conclusions are damning and indicate that the United States must invest far more in maintaining its existing transit infrastructure than it is currently, or suffer the consequences of rotting tracks, vehicles, and stations.

Notably, the report indicates that the seven systems studied (Chicago’s CTA, Boston’s MBTA, New York’s MTA, New Jersey Transit, San Francisco’s BART, Philadelphia’s SEPTA, and Washington’s WMATA) have a total $50 billion backlog of repairs necessary to upgrade equipment to a state of good repair. Based on current funding, that backlog will stretch on for decades if nothing is done. The existing fixed guideway modernization program provides about $5.4 billion annually for capital upgrades on the nation’s older lines at an 80% federal share.

Though the report does not provide information by agency, it does give information about needs across modes and assets for all systems, as the charts below show:



The majority of needs are for heavy rail (a $37.1 billion backlog), but the report indicates that the current fixed guideway modernization formula inappropriately overfunds the commuter rail system and newer light rail systems, to an extent that the “older rail” cities like New York or Philadelphia are being underfunded and are incapable of meeting their capital needs. In fact, the modernization program only addresses a very small percentage of overall requirements to meet a state of good repair, as documented in the chart below:


The report recommends that the federal government increase spending on funding repairs to existing fixed guideway systems, arguing that it remains necessary for these agencies to upgrade their vehicles, tracks, and stations to an adequate quality. Importantly, the study suggests that the current formula for distributing funds – based on an insane 7-tier process – is inappropriate, and that more money be distributed directly to those agencies most in need of improvements.

More importantly, though, the FTA suggests that the Congress authorize an average of $4.2 billion more annually over the next twelve years with a temporary state of good repair fund (alternatives also provided: $8.3 billion annually over six years or $2.5 billion annually over twenty). That would require the government to commit to a total average of $10.1 billion in funds annually for the program. Thereafter, once repairs are complete, the report suggests that the program should be designed to continue funding agencies at a level of $5.9 billion annually.

The FTA’s report is well-timed, because it comes just as Congress is considering the replacement for the current transportation bill. I hope that members of the House and Senate will look seriously at this information and considerably increase funding for fixed guideway modernization.

All charts above from Federal Transit Administration study


Illinois Shuts Down Transit Project Funding

Governor claims it’s a temporary move for difficult economic times – but doesn’t cut roads funds

Evidently, it’s not impressive enough to have a 9% increase in transit ridership over the last five years. You would think that facts like those would encourage the state to invest more in public transportation.

Rather, the Chicago Tribune reports today that Illinois Governor Pat Quinn has put about $1 billion of transit projects, including $900 million in the Chicago region, on hold because of the state’s budget crisis. Transit agencies CTA, Metra, and Pace were ordered to stop committing money to new projects and even to stop planning. The funding had been announced by the governor just several weeks ago as a sort of mini-economic stimulus for the state, and it included funding for roads as well. But those highway projects have been spared, as Mr. Quinn has simply decided that only transit will suffer the consequences of the state’s financial issues.

The transit funds were expected to be used to finance capital repairs and new rolling stock. CTA was to use its $500 million to buy new hybrid buses and improve track conditions along the Red Line. Metra wants to buy new trains for its Electric Line, and Pace has allocated funds for new buses. That money is now being delayed by a state that is placing road construction ahead of transit in its priority list.

It’s too bad, too, because investing in transit is an effective recession fighter, providing good jobs to people working in construction and improving (and cheapening) the mobility of those who don’t have jobs. Investing today in capital expenses makes a whole lot of sense, too, because contracts have been coming in at far lower costs than just six months ago, meaning that government investments today can go a lot further than they could last year.

Chicago, like New York, is quite reliant on the state government to ensure funding for its transit agencies. There’s a strong mistrust between the city and downstate interests, which have often willfully neglected the needs for transit funding, as proven by the Chicago doomsday episodes of 2007. Then, the state only responded when the transit agencies threatened massive fare increases and service cuts (just as New York’s MTA is doing today). This action by Mr. Quinn, intentionally focusing on transit cutbacks, rather than spreading the budget problems all around to roads, suggests that the governor’s vision for the state is one in which he continues this seemingly permanent underfunding of transit.

Finance Miami

Miami Voters May be Asked to Consider Abandoning Transit Tax

picture-14General discontent in Miami-Dade County foments over lack of transit expansion progress

— Update: the measure to allow voters to decide whether to remove the 1/2¢ sales tax for transit was defeated by the County Commission by a vote of 7-4 —

The Miami Herald reported yesterday that Miami-Dade County Commissioner Carlos Gimenez has introduced a resolution to the body that would allow the greater electorate to vote on whether to continue paying the dedicated 1/2¢ sales tax that they approved for transit funding back in 2002. The council will have to approve the measure before it would be submitted to voters on the ballot. Allowing voters to cancel the sales tax, however, would result in not only nothing being constructed but also a significant decline in existing transit, which is now quite reliant on the revenue source.

The vast majority of money raised by that tax — $900 million thus far — has gone to subsidize existing operations, with little going to the 89 miles of Metrorail service initially planned. The first link to be constructed, the 2.4-mile Orange Line Phase I, connecting the existing system to the airport’s people mover system, will break ground on Friday with service expected by 2012. But an extension of that line west to Sweetwater and the construction of a new corridor north along 27 Avenue to Carol City have been put on the slow track, now that most of the tax revenue is being used to cover operating expenses.

Sales taxes did provide 11 million miles of annual bus service, and the city has succeeded in providing free rides to senior citizens, an initial goal. But the original plan was to add 17 million additional miles of service, and of the 11 added to operations, half has already been cut. There are fewer trains running on the Metrorail system than in 2002. Instead of ramping up expansion, the transit agency instead ramped up hiring, adding 1,000 jobs and spending mostly on maintaining existing transit operations and increasing salaries. There are some pretty good reasons to be pissed off at the way the money collected from the sales tax has been spent, especially considering the grandiose plans that were promised to taxpayers. While many cities — including Charlotte and Denver — promised more than they could chew when they encouraged their populations to vote for 1/2¢ transit sales taxes, Miami seems to have done particularly poorly in implementing initial goals.

But while the county commissioners have been relatively honest in admitting their failure to complete projects as planned, they argue that eliminating the sales tax would ultimately mean destroying the transit system. While the tax has not led to a significant increase in service, it has prevented a decrease in service that would have otherwise been inevitable. For the sake of Miami’s transit-using citizens (Metrorail alone attracts almost 70,000 riders a day), it would be disastrous to eliminate this principal funding source.

Clearly, though, oversight on the use of the tax receipts is a necessary step. While the city has an independent Citizens Independent Transportation Trust, supposed to oversee transit expansion, it clearly hasn’t been successful. The city’s existing priorities must be reexamined, focusing on lines that would attract the highest ridership, such as the Douglas Road Extension and the BayLink Line to South Beach, which are more likely to attract federal New Start funds than the north and western corridors of the Orange Line proposal. In addition, there clearly is a pattern of corruption in rewarding employees with unnecessary wage increases and subsidizing bus lines that serve few customers. A reformed transit agency would spend more of its money on bolstering service.

Even with Miami’s problems, Mr. Gimenez’s instincts — to simply shrivel up funding for transit — are completely wrong-headed. Perhaps it’s not the time to increase the sales tax… but it is the time for finding better uses of existing funds. Miami needs to get its transit system in line, not out of service.

Image above: Miami transit plan, from Miami-Dade County (PDF)

Congress High-Speed Rail

Congressional Conference Report Secures $1 Billion Annually for HSR

Obama plan for annual high-speed rail funding approved by House and Senate Democratic conferees

I’ve just read through the conference report of the U.S. FY 2010 Budget Resolution, which outlines spending in fiscal year 2010, and serves as the agreement between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The report includes the $1 billion for high-speed rail that President Obama asked to be included in the budget, in addition to the $8 billion already included for fast rail service in the stimulus bill. The report also sided with the House’s larger $481 billion in transportation outlays to be spent over the next five years, versus the $477 billion that had been proposed by the Senate. This report, though not yet voted on by Congress – a necessary action – will almost definitely be approved and passed into law after being signed by the President because of large Democratic majorities in both houses.

In other words, good news from Congress: support for transportation remains strong, important considering that the transportation reauthorization bill, good for six years, will be put under consideration over the next few months. While the bill’s tepid support for rail improvements (we need a lot more than $1 billion a year for true high-speed rail) isn’t the greatest news, at least Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), who forced $10 billion out of the bill, didn’t decide to sacrifice Mr. Obama’s proposals for transportation programs in the process.

There wasn’t much to expect out of the budget, though, and this report doesn’t surprise. What’s exciting is SAFETEA-LU‘s replacement.